A sermon preached by Bonnie Katusich
on 25 July 2021 [9 Pentecost]:
2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-19; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
Good morning. I’ve mentioned to some of you that from September last year through March of this year I participated in a ‘community of discerners’ led by facilitators from our combined Massachusetts Diocese. I was recently given the opportunity to talk about my experience with my home community - you, and to share a little about my story in the form of a sermon. And here I am…
When was the last time you did something for the first time? I heard these lyrics from pop and country singer Darius Rucker recently, and they made me stop and think. I’m 59; I’m in bed most nights by 9pm; my comforts in life come from my routines; I’ve been in my current job for 17 years; John and I are looking at retirement in the next few years. Yet I’ve had this…yearning for several years that I’ve not been able to satisfy. I desire to ‘do’ something I have a deep passion for; something I cannot name. How is that possible? Where does this feeling come from?! What is it?! And what am I supposed to do about it?!
After witnessing Jason Burn’s ordination in March of 2020, I thought maybe this yearning is to do something deeper within the church. Perhaps becoming a Deacon would satisfy my longing. I spoke to Jason; I spoke to Ann Wood (who some of you may remember was also a Deacon at one time here), and decided to take a Diocesan class for those wanting to discern their spiritual calling. Discern a calling. What does that mean?! Basically, I wanted to come to a better understanding of what my spiritual calling was, or is, and so I enrolled in the class that was to be the first step in my discerning journey.
When class started in September 2020 I was in a precarious place in my life as I was in deep struggle with a particular event happening within my family. I didn’t know how I would do in the class as a recent and traumatic bump in a series of events at home had me at half-attention, and I was sure no one would be able to relate and certainly no one else had the same or as extreme struggles as I. I felt, “How can I find peace when my trials evoke emotions that feel bigger than my faith?” That question actually came from a writer/teacher of an online study that I took of Daniel (specifically the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den), and that’s exactly where I was in September of 2020. “How can I find peace when my trials evoke emotions that feel bigger than my faith?” I stepped out and started the class anyway.
Sharing my life with others in this community – who were complete strangers in the beginning - opened many spiritual and emotional doors in me as we became more comfortable in our group. For one, I quickly and humbly learned that I truly was not the only one struggling with real-life events, and I had to check my own self-pity and take it down a couple notches!
Early in the class we were tasked with going back through our lives and recalling the many details in our lives from early childhood on that shaped us. We were asked to tell our story based on those recollections, focusing on times we recognized God’s hand in our journey.
This was a meaningful experience for me. While I grew up in an idyllic setting, and had a happy carefree life with virtually no trauma or life changing grief, I also grew up with no direction: I had no plans, no goals, as I literally wandered down the road, initially doing what I felt I was ‘supposed’ to do – primarily go to college in the 80’s even though I had no idea for what (“I want to work with people.”). I followed ideas and paths that I liked and that paid my bills. It was completely accidental that I ended up majoring in accounting.
I’ve made some pretty poor decisions in my life. And all of those decisions, good and bad, landed me right here in front of you today. I can’t help but wonder how I ended up with a career I enjoy and that pays well; with a loving family; a home, and many comforts – when I literally wandered into it all! I can’t help but wonder…how could God not have had a hand in my paths?
In my past year’s journey that kicked off with the Diocesan community on discernment, one- I and 30 others finished the class in March of this year; two – I realize that becoming a Deacon in the Episcopal church is not my calling (a conversation for another day perhaps); and three – the relationships I’ve built with other Christians have enriched my life tenfold, and have provided new opportunities almost every week to try something new! When was the last time you tried something for the first time? Another one of these ‘firsts’ for me has been a book study with a group of local as well as global participants. Through Craig Hammond’s leadership (he was also a facilitator of the discernment community) I participate in a book study, using Michael Casey’s book, Fully Human, Fully Devine: An Interactive Christology (Ligouri/Triumph, 2004) – a yearlong study of the Gospel of Mark. Participating in this study with new friends has opened my heart and my mind even more to the Bible’s teachings. Casey delves into various aspects of Jesus life and journey as read from Mark, and in ways that helps the reader gain a more human perspective into Jesus’ life. As fully human, Jesus suffered as we do: with decisions, with relationships, with many things. And like us he was tested and influenced by the environment he grew up in. Like us he had experiences that gave him perspectives and choices that affected how he reacted/acted in his journeying experiences. Our study group meets biweekly, and I also meet biweekly with a study buddy (Nancy Harvin) from the group, to discuss the readings. As Nancy and I have gotten to know each other, and as the group as a whole share more, we find we discuss our readings as it relates to our current trials, relationships, and lives. I think it’s fair to say that our reading and related discussions have a positive affect on each of us and in our individual lives. From strangers to friends, all of us.
In chapter fourteen of Casey’s book, called Jesus the Learner, Casey says this about Jesus – and please understand this is Casey’s perspective – there are many perspectives on the life of Jesus, and we can and should learn from them all. So, Casey says (text in parenthesis are mine): “Most characteristic of all was his (Jesus’) capacity to learn from the world around him. The parables of Jesus reveal an incisive (clear thinking) intelligence, able to learn lessons from the most every day occurrences.” “So willing a learner was he that almost anyone could become his teacher.” (both quotes Kindle version p.177) You may remember this story as told in Mark where Jesus finds a house to hide in.
Immediately a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. She was Greek, of Syrophoenician origin. She asked him to drive out the demon from her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first. It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The woman replied thus: “Indeed Lord, but the dogs under the table eat the childrens’ crumbs.” Jesus said to her: “For this saying, go your way; the demon has come out of your daughter.” And the woman went to her house and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone. (Mark 7: 25-30)
In this story, the woman barges in on him when he desires to be alone, and he is abrupt – to the point of rudeness. Her trust – her faith – in his powers, and her humility are initially counted as nothing. Initially, (again, this is one perspective keep in mind – but listen) Jesus isn’t here to save anyone other than his own people. Now here is humility and faith from a Gentile. Casey says, “Jesus….is won over by her boldness. She has held a mirror up to him and, as it were, for the first time he has seen himself and his mission more clearly (Kindle version, p. 178).”
He had similar experiences with the bleeding woman who worked her way through a crowd and touched his cloak with the faith of “if I but touch his clothes, I will be made well (Mark 5:28).” And a leader of the synagogue who asked Jesus to heal his daughter. In these and many more experiences with those he encounters, Jesus learns from their humility and from their faith. Not criticizing or sending them away, but he learns from each of them. Again, Casey: “There is something very attractive about the picture of Jesus gradually distilling his wisdom from the experience of encounter with others. It is as though the goodness of so many little people is recapitulated in him. Not a walking encyclopedia of religion, but one who, like his mother Mary, pondered and cherished much in his heart (Kindle version, p.179).”
I bring this up because for so many years I saw Jesus so differently than me – foreign, like nothing I could ever truly even imitate. Part of my yearning, my deep desire to do something I could not name, came I think from these mysteries I created myself. We can see Jesus in everyone. He ate with sinners, stayed at their homes. He learned from everyone around him. He saw himself in all of them. Yet, he is the Son of God, seated at God’s right hand.
I am still discerning my call, and have acted on some things as they become clear: my desire for pastoral work; my work as an ombudsman; but my call doesn’t end there. I still have so much to learn, and will continue to learn in the same way I started earlier in my life, when I was wandering: from people I meet every day, and the experiences I have through those encounters as I’ve shared today. When is the last time I did something for the first time? In many ways my answer is this: Every single day. Sometimes more than once. As long as I continue to have the desire to do, there is no last time…
To finish up, I want to tell you that our Episcopal Diocese has always been a wealth of information and resources for its ministers, lay people, and for the congregations it serves. I have given you one small yet powerful (for me) example of how my discernment process has guided me. My hope and prayer for each of you is that you listen to your heart and are moved to ‘do’ in your own way. Amen.